The Cambodian Mine Action Centre has begun breeding its own dogs, which deminers say is crucial in their efforts to remove the millions of mines that still litter the countryside
A CMAC demining dog trains at the agency's centre in Kampong Chhnang province last week.
CMAC Dog deminers
- Funding US$800,000 to $1 million per year.
- Introduced In 1996
- Supported by Technical experts from the Swedish Armed Forces
- Began training With Cambodian handlers and dogs brought in from Sweden in 1998.
- Became operational The first two dog teams were operational by 2000
- Handover In 2002, the Swedish administration handed over the program to Cambodia but it is still supported by foreign dogs.
- Dogs 87 foreign dogs; 56 of them are already working in the provinces while the rest are in training.
Six-year-old Gaja moves methodically along a white rope, her handler close by and her nose pinned to the ground. If she catches the scent of TNT, Gaja will sit down to mark the target.
The reward - a Kong, the red rubber toy that is her most cherished toy.
The young Malinois is training on this day, but soon her work will be deadly serious.
Gaja and handler Chan Saveth have cleared mines in Pailin and Battambang provinces since 2005.
"I have never had difficulties working with Gaja," said Chan Saveth, a senior dog handler with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC).
"My dog can clear mines and other objects [containing] TNT. Since she started working in 2005, she has found 23 mines and pieces of unexploded ordnance," he added.
Gaja and Chan Saveth have completed their training but return to the centre every six months for health examinations and additional training sessions.
The most capable dogs recruited by the centre are trained as mine detection dogs, while others are groomed to sniff out explosives and are used to locate more stable unexploded ordnance, or UXOs, in the provinces.
Why use mine dogs?
Dogs have proven much more efficient at establishing the boundaries of a minefield than manual methods using metal detectors.
"The metal detectors will detect all kinds of metal, and then the demining team will spend a lot of time to dig them out. But the dog only smells TNT," said Nguon Thy, a senior instructor at CMAC.
He added that the centre's dogs can cover a half-hectare of land in half a day, a mission that takes three days using mine-clearing machines.
The dogs - German shepherds and Belgian shepherds, called Malinois - are brought to Cambodia mostly from Sweden, Germany or Bosnia.
Some have had previous training and cost as much as US$4,000 each.
The centre recently acquired a new class of trainees: 10 one-year-old dogs with previous training, and 11 puppies from Bosnia.
Three lively Malinois puppies - Atrap, Ametta and Atar - represent the future of the training centre. The only survivors of a litter of 10 puppies born eight months ago, the trio are the first to be bred in Cambodia, and centre officials say they mark an important step towards self-sufficiency.
"In the future, we will breed our own dogs. [Now], it is very good for us because we have much experience and can ... train dogs ourselves,"
said Nguon Thy, who trained as a dog instructor in Sweden.
The centre will start breeding new dogs next year, and plans have been drawn up to expand operations and personnel.
The dog and handler have to have a good social connection ... when working in the real minefields.
"This centre now is a bit cramped with 270 human trainees. We plan to upgrade in January next year with funding already supplied from Sweden and the United States," said Penh Savath, deputy director of the centre.
Staffers hope that breeding dogs in Cambodia will eliminate a major problem facing the program - the weather.
"The major obstacle with dogs imported from other countries is the hot weather. They are not used to the hot weather because they used to live in countries where temperatures are below zero," said Rin Vuth, team leader of the Short-leash Dog Team No 6.
"When the weather is hot, the dogs cannot work. We emphasise physical training so they do not get fat," he added.
Training includes an hour-long swim in a special pool to cool the dogs down and help them build muscle.
After basic training, dogs are matched with handlers recruited from the group of deminers already working at the centre and in the field.
It takes one to two years of training to become a handler.
Once paired up, the dog and handler train together and sleep together in the same room, with the dog's cage placed at the foot of the handler's bed.
"The dog and handler have to have a good social connection because it is important when working in the real minefields," Nguon Thy said.
"They have to trust each other completely."
For now, young Atrap, Ametta and Atar know little of the expectations and dangers they will face in the field.
They are learning to sniff out TNT hidden in hollow bricks, bonding with their trainers and waiting for their reward - play time with the cherished rubber toy.